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The Time-Bomb Ticks in the Sahel…Where to Begin?

Doug begins training local staff in PA (Participatory Appraisal) in earnest. His staff will be made up of students and local community workers, some of whom will continue to work for the programme after Doug leaves and; thereby, ensure continuity and grow local experience of coping with emergency.

Participatory Appraisal is a research methodology developed to make more accurate field assessments. In the past, agencies might send in people from outside to put together questionnaires designed to eke information out of local people. This method of gleaning essential information was found to be inefficient; people do not like answering questions. People are naturally suspicious of outsiders, especially those perceived to be in authority.

The questioner comes from a totally different background and paradigm and will not know how to ask the ‘right’ questions that will provoke the ‘right’ kind of information. In essence, the poorest of the poor fall through the cracks, as they are usually the ones most hidden from society, struggling to eke out an existence, usually unavailable for answering questions. Information gleaned this way was found to be ineffective. The reality of what was perceived by ‘Head Office’ based in a first world city differed hugely for the distant reality of remote and inhospitable, starved and parched parts of the world.

Participatory Appraisal involves people. It does what is says on the tin: encourages people to participate. It has been found that when there is ownership of an idea, or calls to action at a grass root level, community programmes are usually successful. Local communities everywhere are suspicious of top-down hierarchical imposition of outside solutions based on lack of awareness of natural, social infrastructure and mores. In PA, locals participate more; it is ‘their’ solutions we are interested in finding out. After all, these people live amongst the harshest conditions on the planet and are amazingly resilient. Badly needed answers should always emerge through ‘local knowledge.’

PA employs the use of all sorts of practical tools to win relevant and essential information. The use of such ‘tools’ suit more tactile, oral traditions. Piling stones is used, for example, in wealth-ranking, instead of asking for numbers, which would make eyes roll and instantly put people en guard. Discerning the worst hit areas is established through mapping – often drawing in the sand; as how do you tell someone to turn left at an acacia fifty miles away when there is no sense of measurement in miles? Locals know every grain of sand, every tree and surviving bush. Their lives depend on possessing exceptional spacial awareness.

Doug will train his team in how to do this with local interest groups: women’s groups, local chiefs, primary health care workers and myriad other community groups within visible badly hit areas. The community will tackle their starvation together with the right kind of help from all of us.

From this in-depth assessment, Doug will be able to ascertain the situation and its severity.  It will give the agency an idea as to how many more households need help.  It will help determine how much food to give each household. It will also look at coping strategies that households are using to find food;  for example, men are leaving their families and going to other countries to earn money. This means that they will not be there to cultivate their fields. This will mean even less food. Also, women, who already have more than enough to do, take on men’s work, grinding maze for payment in husks, which they then feed their children. All these elements make the poverty-trap and starvation worse, as people struggle against the odds to feed their families.

The initial assessment will give Doug and his team more up to date information, so as to be able to write accurate reports for donors in a bid for sufficient funding. It means the true cost of recovery can be assessed and money be spent on exactly the right things. The assessment will also take into consideration the Mali refugees fleeing the civil war and pouring into Niger. Finally, the assessment will let the team know how the people feel about what is being done for them and what future aid they will need. For example, money might be used to bring the men home and pay them to work their own fields. Basically, Doug will be looking at ways to help them build on positive coping mechanisms and strengthening local ability to cope with droughts in the future.  Drought in this region will worsen. Climate Change is a reality. Dealing with starvation is a holistic problem, and it belongs to all of us.

The PA approach is a mixture between good development practice and emergency aid. It is never enough to set up feeding stations as the problems always return. Humanitarian practitioners have long since moved away from the idea of ‘charity’ to that of empowerment and participation, building on natural human resilience to overcome adversity, using local ingenuity with communities working together to overcome collective problems. These days, the focus is on development rather than knee-jerk sentimental momentary reaction to, ‘poor, starving babies in Africa.’

Having said that, danger is real and imminent – a ticking time-bomb to which we must find not only instant humanitarian solutions, but empowering, developmental ones also.

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About Dr Niamh

When I was a little girl (a very, very long time ago), I used to love learning new, really big words like ‘discombobulate’. As I grew, my love of words grew too, until I loved them so much, I could not stop writing them down. One day, as I was scribbling a particular word, a very peculiar thing happened. The word shouted at me, “Stop! Don’t put me there!” As you can imagine, I was shocked and nearly fell off my chair. When I recovered somewhat, I said to the word, “Could you stop shouting, please? I am not used to it.” Can you guess what happened next? No! I thought not. The word said, “I might be small, but I will misbehave if you do not use me properly. I will not tell the story you would like me to tell. I will say something entirely different!” I dropped my pen. I hoped that by dropping my pen, the word would stop talking. Alas! It did not. It carried on chitterchobbling, even after the ink had dried. I was in a pickle. I could not allow my words to run away with my story, now could I? I don’t know about you, but when this sort of thing happens, there is only one thing left to do if you prefer not to spend your time arguing. “Very well,” said I. “I will do as you ask if you will just be quiet and allow me to concentrate.” Since that day, I have been paying special attention to every word I invite into my stories. After all, a story should say exactly what it means to say and not be led astray. With love from Dr. Niamh, Ph.D in Learning Through The Imagination and Founder of Dr Niamh Children's Books. www.drniamh.co.uk

10 comments on “The Time-Bomb Ticks in the Sahel…Where to Begin?

  1. Joanna Lee Doster
    May 22, 2012

    God Bless people like you and Doug! Making the world better stone by stone “plum by plum.” You are the embodiment of “Paying It Forward Truly inspirational. How can we help on the most basic level… donating clothes, household medical supplies, books children’s books?:There must be something we can donate??? I know I sound like these things would ameliorate the horrific conditions.. Hugs, Joanna

    Like

  2. kdsommerset
    May 22, 2012

    Many thanks for keeping us in touch with Doug’s wonderful work. All the best to him and those he is working with.

    Like

  3. Walking with Beverley
    May 22, 2012

    So grateful to Doug and the cause in Africa. I know the enormity of it all. My husband and son went to Africa 4 years ago and it was an amazing project. Often feeling “did we do enough?” but every moment of help counts. God Bless Doug and his staff for all their efforts!

    Like

    • ontheplumtree
      May 22, 2012

      I will pass on your message to the whole team. It will hearten them to know that those they have never met extend goodwill.

      Like

    • ontheplumtree
      May 23, 2012

      All we can do is our best. What a wonderful experience for your son. I brought my daughter out to Africa when she was 15, when I was working for Oxfam. She visited some of the Oxfam field projects with me. She has never forgotten the experience. I think it reinforced her humility.

      Like

  4. josslandry
    May 22, 2012

    That lovely woman’s smile, and the way she is eyeing her child with so much love lends me such a helpless feeling. Love is supposed to conquer all. Tell your husband we’re all with him over here.

    Like

    • ontheplumtree
      May 23, 2012

      I wanted to post a positive image amongst the many that will be shown. She is lovely. Hope we can prevent families such as these from facing destruction.

      Like

  5. mapelba
    May 23, 2012

    I currently have several students from African countries. Most of my students are well off, fortunate young people. But one young woman was a former child slave in Liberia and another was rescued from the LRA. She is here having her face reconstructed since she had the misfortune of being in a bomb blast.

    So much work to do in the world. Blessings upon Doug.

    Like

  6. Patricia Tilton
    May 29, 2012

    Niamh, many blessings to your husband and team who are trying to develop a plan for the people they serve! We need more individuals like him. Such important work. Finally can respond to you — the wifi is working for now. And, I,ve been so busy.

    Like

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